When we consider the question of how the temporal flux of music conjures up the qualitative sense of space, we do not usually turn to rhythm. Instead, we consider ambient sound, noise, echo, and the sense of dimension introduced by variations in pitch and widely distributed tonal clusters. Rhythm even seems to cut against the subjective construction of musical space, slicing and dicing the acoustic dimension into purely temporal events. But I would like to suggest that West African polyrhythm carves out a unique and powerful dimension of acoustic space by generating an array of autonomous milieus which are layered, stacked, and constantly interpenetrating—a "nomadic" space of multiplicity unfolded on the fly. Polyrhythm impels the listener to explore a complex space of beats, to follow any of a number of fluid, warping, and shifting lines of flight, to submit to what the hip hop act ATribe Called Quest calls "The rhythmic instinction to yield to travel beyond existing forces of life."
Though I prefer the looser and more playful term polyrhythm, traditional West African drumming is perhaps more accurately described as polymetric. The meter is the standard unit of time that divides European music. In most symphonies or ensembles, all instruments basically follow the same meter; the shared rhythm is counted evenly and stressed on every main beat. We thus call Western rhythm divisive because it is divided into standard units of time. But the traditional rhythms of West African music are considered additive, a term which already gives us an indication of their fundamental multiplicity. The music's complex percussive patterns bubble up from the shifting and open-ended interaction between many different individual drum patterns and pitches. As John Miller Chernoff puts it, "in African music there are always at least two rhythms going on."
In order to notate this music, which is traditionally passed on mnemonically and orally, Western musicologists are forced to assign different meters to different instruments—hence, "polymetric". Written down, the measures that organize the repetitive beat sequences associated with each instrument can be of variable lengths and time signatures. Neither the bar lines nor the main beats associated with each instrument coincide, but instead are "staggered" throughout a music whose rhythmic motifs are constantly appearing and disappearing. Individual musicians thus practice what is called "apart-playing," maintaining a definite distance between their beats and those of the other drummers, a "space of difference" which refuses to collapse or fuse into a unified rhythmic "point." In turn this produces permanent conversations or cross-patterns between each drum, a dialogue which is also a complex dimension of difference introduced between elements that are themselves often quite repetetive and simple.
"Every milieu is vibratory,"
Deleuze and Guattari write. "In other words, a block of space-time constituted
by the periodic repetition of the component. Every milieu is coded, a code
being defined by periodic repetition." It
seems clear: each specific milieu is a block of space-time produced by
the exacting repetitions of each individual drum. Polyrhythmic communication
thus unfolds as an interdimensional play of milieus—a mutating array of
slices, splits, folds and fusions;
an acoustic hyperspace.
"One milieu serves as the basis for another, or conversely is established
atop another milieu, dissipates in it or is constituted in it. The notion
of the milieu is not unitary: not only does the living thing [the
dancer/listener] continually pass from one milieu to another, but the milieus
pass into one another; they are essentially communicating. The milieus
are open to chaos,
which threatens them with exhaustion or confusion. Rhythm is the milieu's
answer to chaos."
And with the ancient mediation of the drum, this potent play between chaos and rhythm carries us outside of theory and into the dance of lived multiplicity. Polyrhythmic music provides a primary and unusually intuitive avenue, not just to conceptualize, but to draw these heterogeneous spaces, chaotic passages and communicating milieus into our bodyminds as we weave ourselves into the polyrhythmic ensemble's fibrillating tapestry of molecular beats and criss-crossed percussive patterns.
Because listeners are forced to adopt any of a number of possible rhythmic perspectives—subjective assemblages which themselves reorganize the acoustic space that surrounds them— Chernoff rightly insists that they are "actively engaged in making sense of the music." We must enter into polyrhythm; by selecting particular rhythmic clusters, and cutting and combining them with other beats, our bodyminds generate a sense of coherent flux within a space of multiplicity, a kind of balanced line of flight that constantly criss-crosses a shifting and unstable terrain. Listening and dancing to polyrhythm, we thus tacticly participate in the phenomenon of emergence, as fluid lines arise from the complex and chaotic interaction (or "communication") of numerous smaller and simpler repetitions and individual beats.
While it's fruitful to speak of polyrhythmic experience in the language of the dance, we should also remember that the body so mobilized may be entirely virtual. As Richard Waterman points out, "African music, with few exceptions, is to be regarded as music for the dance, although the 'dance' involved may be entirely a mental one." And I'd like this figure of the "mental dance" to lead us into cyberspace, into the simultaneously premodern and postmodern spaces opened up by the tactile yet disembodiedelectromagnetic beats of the Black Electronic.
- Erik Davis - _Roots And Wires - Polyrhythmic Cyberspace and Black Electronic_
Like a posture or a series of movements in rituals, infralanguage is 'both learned and given' as it translates 'codes and contexts'. Moreover, as we are talking about a networked learning, we are not just talking about human learning, or the distribution of weights within the network of the brain, but also about the way that there is a distribution of weights across nodes. Particularly important here are 'abstract rhythms' (Felix Guattari has labelled these 'refrains') as these are basic elements of processual structure that can cross codes and contexts, bring them together, translate them in, we could say, polyrhythm, syncopation or simple rhythmic transformation and variations. It is perhaps no wonder that computer games and music have been so central to the expansion of networks – both deal intensely with these rhythmic transformations of codes and posture at the interface of the networks of technics, brain and body.
- Andrew Murphie - _When Fibre Meets Fibre – Networking As Ritual Meeting Of Body, Brain & Technics